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Full text of "Conversations with W.W. Finlator"

it and 



isdom of 



inlator 



Conversations with Bill 
by G. McLeod Bryan 




W. W. Finlator has been variously called the watchdog of the state 
government, the conscience of the south, the gadfly of his denomination, the 
dean of all churchmen supporting labor unions, the defender of civil liberties, 
and a friend of the poor, the powerless, and the voiceless. A Baptist minister, 
reared in North Carolina and serving for fifty years churches in the eastern 
half, the last twenty-six at Pullen Memorial in Raleigh, he has also served in a 
national capacity on many boards, including the American Civil Liberties 
Union, Southerners for Economic Justice, and the Advisory Committee for 
the U. S. Civil Rights Commission. 

His sermons have been more widely reproduced in newspapers and 
journals than perhaps any other southern clergyman. His writings have 
appeared extensively in national journals: during 1981 alone six articles 
appeared and one national journal between the years 1967 and 1981 ran 
nineteen. He commenced a regular column in 1939 under the pen-name 
"Festus Erasmus. " He sparked the founding of a magazine, Christian 
Frontiers, and wrote most of its editorials. 

He has won the Frank Porter Graham Award (1980), the A.F.L.-C.I.O. 
Award (1980), the N. C. Human Relations Council Award (1981), and several 
awards from black groups. Within his own denomination he is celebrated for 
having introduced almost annually provocative, socially-concerned resolutions 
on issues ranging from the banning of capital punishment to the 
decriminalization of victimless crimes. He has sometimes been called the 
minister who marches since he has joined innumerable protest groups, from 
the Freedom Riders of 1961 to the ERA rally of 1981. 

He has managed a wide friendship stretching across the spectrum of 
newspeople, social liberals, judges and politicians, artists and writers, 
ecumenical leaders, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish, and university personnel. 
All the while he has occupied a pulpit which Sunday after Sunday has 
distinguished itself for its prophetic voice. If history is best written by the 
preacher who speaks God's apt word to the urgent issues of his generation, 
then the researcher cannot ignore Bill Finlator 's files. In fact, the Wisconsin 

—continued on back cover. 






Conversations 

with 

WW, Finlator 



Paul Green to Bill Finlator, November 12, 1980: 

"Dreams that often get fastened down in steel and 

concrete, ritual and rote may prove obdurate and 

evil, cruel and oppressive, but we must keep at the 

business of awakening the sleeper, mustn't we? 

You do!" 



by G. McLeod Bryan 



1982 

Wake Forest University 

Publications 



^«^f^p?^r=Y r -■---•- 



Digitized by the Internet Archive 
in 2013 



http://archive.org/details/conversationswitOOfinl 



Q Some people say the south would never be what it is without 
Bill Finlator, certainly not North Carolina. You have 
managed to get the ear of many of our public leaders: 
Senator Ervin on civil rights and E.R.A., President Friday 
on desegregation of the university system, governors all the 
way from Luther Hodges on labor unions to Jim Hunt on 
the Wilmington Ten, even to several of our presidents. Tell 
me, Bill, what's the secret of a lowly Baptist preacher 
speaking to the Cabots and the Lodges? 

A I think to stand in a pulpit and not to say something current 
and prophetic, speaking not only to my congregation but 
to the world today, is wrong, is missing a great 
opportunity. 

Q You mention the word "prophetic;" you must be aware that 
most preachers find themselves more comfortable 
functioning as priests and pastors? 

A Yes, in summoning up remembrance of things past I am well 
aware that, as Robert Frost put it, I took the less traveled 
path and it made all the difference. Still I am impressed 
with the consistency with which I have fulfilled that 
commitment made years ago, which was that my ministry 
should give major emphasis to corporate and collective 
ethics rather than to private and individual morality. Not 
that I have minimized the latter at all but that I have long 
known that some 95% of my fellow clergymen would be 
working that side of the street to the neglect, as I feared, 
of what St. Paul called the principalities and powers and 
spiritual wickedness in the high places. Or, to borrow from 
Reinhold Niebuhr's great book, Moral Man and Immoral 
Society, my decision was to leave 'moral man' to the 
tender mercies of my brethren while I, however 
ineffectively in my Don Quixote role, would take on the 
'immoral society,' and I have no apologies. 

Q When did you first want to be a prophet? 

A Oh, I guess all little Baptist boys aspiring to be preachers 
want to be prophets. I even attended a seminary which 



boasted of being America's "school for prophets"! But I 
observed that though the word was celebrated and the 
prophet-heroes of the past ages were eulogized, the 
professors and their protegees comfortably exited through 
the same door by which they entered. I only encountered 
the full dimensions of the prophetic when reading about 
Walter Rauschenbusch, the early twentieth century Baptist 
prophet, and his conception of the Social Gospel. I could 
accept that role of the minister. As I see prophecy it reads: 
In compassion God speaks to the human community 
through certain rare, called persons. Those who 
authentically represent God interpret the activity of God 
in social history. They answer the presence of God in the 
midst of political and economic life; they foretell the 
judgment and hope that are implicit in the loyalties and 
practices of the common life; and they set forth the vision 
of covenantal renewal. . . . The ministry must be all of this; 
otherwise it can really be a sort of cop-out and a desire to 
escape from the awesome and shaking prophetic word. 

You must have known rather early in life that such a 
vocational choice was awfully presumptuous and would 
entrap you in controversy? 

A It is indeed presumptuous to make such a claim. Reinhold 
Niebuhr once said that any minister who says, "Thus saith 
the Lord," is either self-deluded or a charlatan or a 
prophet, and the percentages against his being the last are 
frightening. 

Q And what about controversy? A lawyer-member of your 
former pastorate in Elizabeth City recalls how "every time 
you opened your mouth half the world got mad." 

A The prophetic ministry is the strait gate and the narrow way, 
and few there be that enter in thereat. The demands are 
stringent, the requirements tough, and the journey lonely. 
In every way the minister who chooses it is tasked and 
challenged far beyond his brethren who travel highways 
surveyed by tradition and paved with orthodoxy . . . Still, 



as I wrote in my first article published in the Biblical 
Recorder in 1939, "It is for us to observe that wherever this 
spirit of defiance and daring has entered into the heart of 
man the stream of human history has changed its course." 

Q Incidentally the first article you got published in a national 
magazine was entitled "The Prophetic Ministry." In that 
you remarked how "many a prophet has been gibbeted in 
the public press." How do you see yourself treated at the 
hands of the press over the years? 

A I think the press has been very fair with me and very 
generous. Not that I haven't gotten my come-up-ances 
from the fourth estate from time to time. But of course I 
am fair game, and that's part of the dialogue. As far as 
setting me up or staging a story, it would be only normal 
that a reporter, being human, might turn to sources that he 
would find friendly and readily available. It cannot be 
denied that I have relished the publicity granted to my 
views by the press, I mean of course the secular press (the 
religious press was not so receptive). I would not say that 
editors have gone out of their way to give me a good press, 
but I would say that editors have understood what I said 
and did and for the most part supported me on principle. 
The press has been extraordinarily kind to me. They have 
always quoted me, represented me, fairly. Surely there 
have been times the local press has taken exception to my 
position, and written editorials taking sharp contrast with 
me, but they have rarely attacked me personally. 

Q You seem to have forgotten the vicious attacks of certain 
papers and the seemingly running vendetta of the 
now-senator Jesse Helms belittling you in his WRAL 
editorials. 

A I guess you can say that the most scathing ad hominem 
attack ever made against me was his editorial of November 
17, 1967. I had presented my anti-Vietnam resolution at 
the Baptist State Convention and it was rejected. Helms 
commented: "The most encouraging report of the Baptist 



State Convention's rejection of Rev. W. W. Finlator's 
proposed resolution on Vietnam was not that the Baptists 
rejected it, but that they rejected it with such swiftness 
that no doubt remains as to the question of Mr. Finlator's 
lack of influence within his own denomination. Hereafter, 
no matter how much publicity the gentleman receives 
from the 'liberal' press, he has now overplayed his hand. . . . 
Ironically it was the Rev. Finlator's insatiable appetite for 
publicity that did him in." Yet subsequent to that day, the 
Senator has expressed his friendship for me and has 
incorporated my statements into the Congressional 
Record. You must remember that we know each other as 
fellow Christians; he's a Baptist too. 

Q Would you grant that the press has actually promoted you? 

A Yes, you may say that the press has boosted me. Very early 
along my way, I sensed a collegia! relationship. We were 
partners in a common cause. We were able to sustain, 
affirm and promote each other's activities. Many of the 
newspaper people I have known have been very fine 
persons, open to the truth, and I found that very 
consonant with what I thought should be going on in the 
pulpit. I sensed the press could be in many ways an 
extension of the pulpit. I always felt that the pulpit is an 
open thing. It's in the public eye. Nothing you can say 
there can be hidden; it belongs to the public, and there's 
nothing wrong in extending it beyond the borders of the 
church. Items that are in the public interest, I have no 
hesitation in sharing with the press. 

Q There are some, even your friendly fellow clergymen, who 
maintain you receive an undue amount of coverage. 

A Offhand, I'd say I get more coverage because I am a Baptist, a 
Southern Baptist, if you please! The gentlemen, and 
women, of the press have the habit of looking for a voice 
within the ranks which sounds a different trumpet. It's 
also because of the region we live in. It's the south where 
traditionally when a clergyman said something on a 



relevant public issue he was listened to. The south, even its 
newspapers, still pays attention to the pulpit. Also, I can 
reveal that some of the journalists may have used me as a 
surrogate pastor. So many have given up on the Church. 
And many are really moralists and prophets. In many ways 
their role is analogous to mine. They, like the pulpit 
minister, stand in an adversarial posture to the 
establishment. 

Q Let's go back to the question of controversy. You have quite 
a reputation for enjoying controversy. 

A On occasions I have been asked why I become involved in 
controversy. Controversy is exciting, and I like exciting 
things. Put another way, a minister has to be three things: 
bold, brassy and something of a ham. At times I have been 
all three. But most of all I want to be the first. As a matter 
of fact, the pulpit is always in the limelight and to occupy 
the pulpit Sunday after Sunday without making a 
difference, without really stirring the people, without 
agitating for the Lord, may be a big sin. 

Q But don't you run the danger of popping-off without all the 
facts, of dogmatizing from a heavily biased stance? 

A I don't deny that my answers are often quick and simple. My 
only rationalization is that in certain times of general 
emergency, forthrightness demands vigorous statements, 
not namby-pamby mutterings. 

Q Have there been major issues which you dared not ventilate 
though you secretly cherished doing so? 

A Yes and I still have to live with the shame of being silent 
when I should have spoken, quiescent when I should have 
been involved. I should have defended more loyally and 
loudly Frank Porter Graham when he was being smeared in 
his campaign for the Senate of the United States. Again, in 
1960, I wish that I might have raised my voice more 
clearly on the question of Jack Kennedy's religion, 
defending his right to be a Catholic and at the same time 



to maintain the principle of the separation of church and 
state. . . . You know there is this prudential and cautious 
vein in me which a lot of folks don't see. Perhaps a more 
honest term is cowardice. I do indeed pop off too many 
times and I have been biased from time to time. Issues 
before our people today are complex and convuluted and 
it is not right for a minister to give easy solutions. We just 
have to be on our guard continually against this. 
Nonetheless, to say nothing, to show no outrage or anger, 
or to raise no protest is a more grievous error than to make 
statements without waiting for all the facts to come in. I 
did try to warn my congregation, however, that all "the 
noise and fireworks of controversy" and my understanding 
and assessment of it, is not the same as the "voice of 
God." I have never claimed any inerrancy or insisted that I 
have a special pipeline to heaven unavailable to others. 

Q Don't you lose opportunities to address all the people when 
you take this tact? For instance, your advocacy of the 
poor and those on the underside of our society, clearly a 
biased advocacy, cuts you off from addressing the power 
structures of the community, does it not? 

A Of course I have lost opportunities to speak, many times. 
This is to be expected. There have even been actual 
cancellations, not only from civic clubs but from PTAs and 
college campuses. But there is always this other 
consideration. No person can try to listen carefully to the 
gospel and be aware of the world today without becoming 
controversial. You yourself cited to me once Martin 
Luther's describing the authentic Christian as being present 
where the battle rages. He also speaks of the "wicked 
silence" of church people. When push comes to shove, I'd 
rather be with the non-silent ones. 

Q And how did your Pullen congregation take the many 
controversies of their pastor? 

A There's never been a time that a minister as kooky as I am 
hasn't distressed them. But the Pullen folk are the most 



free-will Baptists I've ever seen. They're a fascinating 
collection of humanity. They do their own thinking. This 
is what makes them — and keeps them — the most exciting 
congregation I ever knew. 

Still the most grievous controversy for you personally arose 
within the ranks of the church itself, over your 1979 
telegram as a private citizen urging President Carter to 
enforce the desegregation laws pertaining to the university 
system. 

A Church divisions are always regrettable and very difficult to 
know how to respond to. I suppose that to some extent I 
lived in a kind of dream world. I have always known that I 
subjected these wonderful people at Pullen to a whole lot 
and it is little short of miraculous that they sustained, if 
not tolerated, me for more than a quarter of a century. I 
know of few other churches in the south where I might 
have survived under similar circumstances. So as 
unfortunate as the entire situation has been and as much as 
it hurt us and as much as I am tempted to resent it 
bitterly, it has to be seen in the wider perspective. 

Q Though I know your career was filled with a series of 
controversies, which would you specify as the pivotal ones, 
the ones which you think helped shape the course of 
history? 

A Well, the really big ones, the ones which never simmered 
down, centered around race, war and unions. But would 
you believe that the most mail response was stirred by my 
article refusing to cooperate in the Raleigh sponsorship of 
Billy Graham? Even Billy himself mailed me a confidential 
retort. And his daughter, who incidentally is married to 
my dentist, gave a lengthy response in space alloted to her 
by the newspaper which had earlier carried my statement. 

Q What did you say that carried such a sting? 

A Dr. Graham is a phenomenon of our times. However, his 
interpretation of the Gospel and mine are not the same. He 

7 



preaches on sin and judgment, as every preacher should, 
but sins with him are personal and private. As one 
theologian puts it, of the Saturday night variety. Nowhere 
do I find Dr. Graham on record as denouncing the sins of 
corporate powers and economic structures. His call for law 
and order is for the man in the street rather than for ITT 
and his strictures against permissiveness are never directed 
at the laissez faire practices of economic and industrial 
giants. I often think of Jesus' remark to the effect that 
while these things should be done, we should not leave the 
weightier matters of the law ... I went on to challenge 
him as to why he supported capital punishment and the 
Vietnam war, and why he had remained aloof from the 
civil rights campaign for blacks. ... I must add quickly 
that something some of us said must have had its effect 
because Billy has moved more constructively in our 
direction since then. 

Q You cite the abstract issues of race, war and unions — surely 
they are not controversial in the abstract? 

A Oh no, I didn't mean that at all. It was when I spoke out or 
acted concretely that the storms broke. For instance, my 
1965 telegram to President Johnson opposing escalation 
and my joining Clergy and Laymen Against the War, these 
specifics raised the rankles. Vietnam seemed to upset the 
congregation, and the public, more than anything else I 
had done up to that moment. It sounded like betrayal or 
treason. The people had sons in service. N. C. State 
University of course, like most institutions, was more or 
less involved in the war effort. The congregation was just 
not up to dealing with a pastor who stood in open defiance 
against his nation at war. And, I hasten to add, I must have 
bored in too heavily upon them, preaching too many 
sermons on the subject. They had a right to squirm. 

Even so, they treated me better than the denomination. I 
never have been so cruelly treated as when I introduced 
my resolutions against the war at the state conventions. I 
can still hear the hissing and screaming from the floor of 



the 1967 convention: "Send Finlator to Vietnam." Even 
the presiding officer violated parliamentary procedure to 
squelch me. And, of course, you may have heard of the 
celebrated time I was moving to the platform in a 
subsequent year to introduce my resolution when a 
delegate loudly proclaimed, "I hope you fall into the 
orchestra pit." 

Q But that was in jest? 

A In those spirited debates it was hard to tell which was in jest 
and which was vicious. ... I received similar abuse when I 
defended the world champion Cassius Clay when he 
refused to be drafted on grounds of his religious 
conscience. I was exposing two sacrosanct nerves, racism 
and militarism. But I suppose my stands against racism 
have brought on the most enduring criticism. Very early, 
in my first three pastorates and in my published articles I 
kept hammering on the plight of the Negro. With the 
Court decision of 1954 I issued a public letter urging our 
state officials to comply. But it was when I took to the 
streets and approved the sit-ins that I really caught the 
flak. It was not easy for me to do this, but when I 
observed members of my own congregation marching 
along Fayetteville Street to urge the theatres and 
restaurants to desegregate I followed suit. But I don't think 
they expected me to go as far as I did, and to continue for 
so many years. The Marie Hill case, the Wilmington Ten, 
the Charlotte Three, Joan Little, the march with Angela 
Davis — how many occasions I don't remember. 

Q Did your church ever restrain you and did you ever lose 
members on account of your witness? 

A As to the first, no, never. They were on the whole very 
supportive; in fact, many worked harder and were further 
along than I. As to losing members, yes. On the occasion 
of our entertaining the Poor People marchers in the spring 
following King's death, feeding them in our church, I 
received a letter from a member moving his membership. 

9 



Among the charges he made was that "these people 
advocate anarchy and to a great extent are communist 
inspired. It is common knowledge that their leaders offer 
white students money and all the sex they desire if they 
will join the march. With such decadent principles as this, I 
just cannot conceive of any church condoning such acts." 
Any church which takes a strong, courageous stand on 
issues of Christian concern can expect to lose some 
members, but it will gain others. 

Q You are chaplain of the state AFL-CIO. Perhaps not as 
publicized is your winning their award in 1980, with the 
plaque reading, "A preacher who practices what he 
preaches." How does it happen that a preacher in a 
middle-class, white-collar, campus church, and a Baptist at 
that, serves as chaplain to a labor union? 

A I am unabashedly a friend of labor and industrial unionism. 
My father was a railroad conductor and a member of the 
Order of Railroad Conductors, a labor union which gave 
dignity and security to his work. He kept all three of us 
children in college in the heart of the depression. Whatever 
gain in working conditions, wages and hours and health 
and retirement have come to the laboring people of 
America have come through their unions. It is just that, 
pure and simple. I have been privileged to stand with labor 
leaders in support of minimum wages and in opposition to 
the unjust and the unsporting right-to-work laws. I have 
strongly endorsed labor's committee on political education 
and have encouraged the unions to a policy of bringing our 
black citizens into full membership. I have urged the 
extension of labor's concern to migrant and unorganized 
farm workers who of all groups stand most in need of 
labor's friendship. I proudly stood with the AFL-CIO in its 
dramatization of grievances against the Carolina Power and 
Light Company. And I have gladly contributed my bit 
towards exploring areas where church and labor might 
work more closely together in common causes. It has been 
difficult for me as a child of labor to see why collective 

10 



strength as represented in, say, the Merchants Association, 
the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of 
Manufacturers, the Farm Bureau, medical, bar, real estate 
and bankers associations, could suddenly become a thing 
of fear and dread, to be legislated against and harried out 
of the land, when the working class seeks similar refuge 
and security. I always felt that what was good for Paul and 
Silas, and for the Hebrew children, was good enough for 
me . . . 

Q How do you relate your commitments to labor with your 
professional job in the church? 

A The church must take a new look at labor by taking a new 
look at the New Testament. As a child of God, man, any 
person, "even the least of these my brethren/' is by virtue 
of his humanity of infinite worth regardless of productive 
capacity. The lost, the despised, the diseased, the 
handicapped, the forgotten, in short, the disadvantaged, 
were the people sought out by Jesus for no other reason 
than that they were there and God loved them. Hence the 
parables of the Lost Coin, the Lost Sheep, and the Lost 
Son. The church ought to be on the side of the people, I 
mean people who can't protect themselves. That accounts 
for some of the things I do. I believe that means unionism 
for the poor people and unionism against race 
discrimination and unionism against a cold war economy. 

Q Yet you and I know very well that any history of organized 
labor in the south will have to expose the opposition of 
the churches to unionism. That history has been 
thoroughly documented in Liston Pope's Millhands and 
Preachers, and in its forty year follow-up, Spindles and 
Spires. 

A I ran into my first real reaction of the church on the occasion 
of the Henderson textile strike of 1959. A local Baptist 
association of churches actually requested that I address 
myself to the strike. What I said then still needs saying, 
unfortunately: 

11 



"It may come with ill grace for an afternoon visitor to take 
to task his fellow churchmen in a community that has 
suffered what only the residents of Henderson can really 
know. An outsider, safe from the awful realities, can be 
presumptuous and for this I beg forgiveness. Yet as 
outsiders we wondered again and again if the local 
churches had no word at all to speak when the entire 
community was in the throes of an agonizing struggle. 

"That the church spoke the quiet word of solace and 
strength to her people, I doubt not, and this is always 
important, as is also the office of the church to condemn 
violence. But with men out of work week after week, with 
the honest expectation of their jobs crumpling into dust at 
the last hour, with the fear in their faces and the despair in 
their hearts that will drive any man to extremities, with a 
state government which in the final analysis had nothing 
more to offer than the Highway Patrol and the National 
Guard, and with a respected union deliberately 'busted,' 
the church, so far as I know, never said a mumbling word! 
Surely, my brethren, this is what Martin Luther would 
again call 'wicked silence,' and we confess with shame that 
we, too, on the outside have participated in this silence. 

"The church does have a word for management-labor 
relations and that word is human dignity and human value 
which must always be placed before all other 
considerations. The church and its leaders dare not look 
the other way when in the dynamics of industrial strife 
clear ethical issues are at stake." 

Q You made the national headlines when you addressed the 
J. P. Stevens stock-holders annual meeting in 1979. What 
happened? 

A For years we had been pushing the unionization of Stevens' 
many textile plants all over the southeast. On this occasion 
some of my friends, in this instance, some Roman Catholic 
sisters, purchased stock and allowed me to enter the 
stockholders' session as their proxy. I managed to get the 
floor. To the chairman, Mr. Finley, I said, "I am a Baptist 

12 



preacher from Raleigh. I wish you would pay your workers 
more. I have a selfish reason for this request. You see, Mr. 
Chairman, I suspect that most of your 40,000 workers are 
Southern Baptists. I'm also a Southern Baptist — a Baptist 
minister approaching retirement. If your workers had more 
money, they would give more to their Baptist churches 
. . ." Chairman James Finley and many stockholders got 
the point. They broke out in smiles. This gave me the 
wedge to persuade the Corporation to negotiate fairly with 
the unions. 

Q As an insider within the union movement did you ever feel 
uncomfortable as a Christian with any of their policies? 

A I am honored to hear from certain quarters that I did 
influence labor to embrace wider humane causes. Yes, I 
think I did become firmly enough established so that I 
could sustain the consequences of any honest criticism 
leveled by me against union practices. ... As I look back, I 
am somewhat surprised that they accepted me as well as 
they did. My reputation for exposing racism, my 
identification with civil liberties, my stand against war, and 
my pressing for unions to be concerned about all workers, 
not just the crafts, all of these matters came up for 
discussion in union meetings. They were taking a great risk 
in bringing me in, and I must pause to give appreciation for 
Millard Barbee who braved that risk. The same goes for 
Wilbur Hobby and the present president, E. A. Britt. I was 
even able to challenge the president of the national 
AFL-CIO, George Meany, for not dissociating himself and 
the working people of America from the Vietnam war. 

Q You often referred to the labor leaders you worked with as 
Christians. Of Barbee, you eulogized: "I cherish the 
memory of my association with a fellow Christian, who 
came up in the ranks of labor and held unfalteringly to the 
vision that compassion and concern and caring for the less 
privileged could be translated into reality and made 
effective through collective strength." This is not the 
image the public generally holds. 

13 



A I can honestly say that the leadership I have worked with, on 
picket lines, in strike rallies, at all the state conventions, 
have been among the finest people I have known. I don't 
know just how I "got in" with the unions except for a 
natural interest and desire to support them. I found 
opportunities to make friends with labor leaders and across 
the years they have included me and made me one of "the 
brethren." As a matter of fact I have run into numerous 
labor leaders who were active Christians and very church 
conscious. They have told me privately that they wished 
their own ministers might be active in the union but they 
seemed to hold no grudge against their ministers for their 
non-participation. They seemed to understand the 
predicament of a southern preacher with regard to the 
power structure which so often muzzles the pulpit. 

Q You have been dubbed "the dean" of all churchmen working 
with organized labor, flow has that affected your over-all 
ministry? 

A I have known that I was a voice in the wilderness and I would 
not be able to persuade any substantial number of my 
fellow clergy to join the cause. I have had no fear from this 
kind of activity of alienating the business community from 
the church and the gospel. The mainline Protestant 
churches are safely in the fold and the business, civic and 
commercial leaders are pretty much in control and this will 
unfortunately continue for awhile. My outspokenness in 
this regard had indeed caused me to lose opportunities to 
speak in the chambers of commerce and the civic clubs. 
This is a price one must be willing and even happy to pay 
- though, to tell the truth, all those I grew up with are in 
that side of the ballpark. Nonetheless I am willing to 
continue repeating, "There is no real hope for poor 
southerners without good, reputable labor union, no other 
way to bring about justice and equity and fair distribution 
of the good things of our economy." 

Yet oddly your congregations and your ecclesiastical 
connections have been mostly, as you put it, on the other 

14 



side of the ballpark. How did they accept your pro-labor 
stance? 

A Did you know that one of my first appearances before the 
Pullen church was to speak on migrant workers? For ten 
years I had been minister of the First Baptist church in 
Elizabeth City. Through this area each spring and summer 
there passed one of the mainstreams of migrant labor. 
There they harvested cabbage and string beans and 
potatoes. There I saw at first hand their terrible plight. No 
one then, and very few now, seem responsible for their 
welfare and for their environmental decency. The church 
did a little but mostly in the nature of palliatives. We tried 
to arouse public indignation and compassion, but were not 
too successful. Dr. Poteat, the pastor of Pullen at the time, 
invited me to address myself to this problem. And as early 
as 1946 I was writing editorials in the new magazine 
Christian Frontiers , calling for a rapprochement between 
churches and labor. So they were fully apprized of my 
stand. 

Q Nonetheless, it must have been hard for many to accept? 

A Yes, I have always strongly identified myself with labor — as 
my Saviour did — , and I propose to continue to do so, 
though, as you imply, this became one of the chief causes 
of unhappiness with some members of our congregation. 

Q To many social observers, you are a peculiarity, Bill. You just 
don't fit their stereotype of the typical southern preacher. 
You've gained the reputation as the south's severest critic, 
yet you love the south, you are devoted to the south, and 
above all you are its bona fide product. No one can accuse 
you of being an outsider. . . 

A I do indeed love the south. Like Thoreau, the citizen of 
Concord, I can declare I have traveled widely within its 
borders. 

O Yet you mince no words in exposing the south's 
shortcomings. Isn't that something of a paradox? 

15 



A I see nothing strange in trying to improve the object one 
loves the most. Loyalty does not mean to love my 
country, my region, my state, my denomination whether it 
is right or wrong. Being loyal to the point of never 
abandoning the object of my loyalty gives me the right to 
address its most glaring deficiencies. The southerners I 
identify with, the truly great southerners — Paul Green, 
Gerald W. Johnson, Frank Porter Graham, Marion Wright, 
and of course its great literary masters like Robert Penn 
Warren and William Faulkner — all make the south great. I 
am proud to be associated with that brand of southern 
culture. 

Q I notice that all the southerners you cite, while their roots are 
deep in their native soil, they speak for all mankind. 

A I am what you might call "a born-again" southerner. True, I 
was born and bred here and have never lived outside the 
south. But you must also remember that I am male, white, 
middle-class, Anglo-Saxon, fairly educated, somewhat 
advantaged, a privileged Protestant minister, and a 
Southern Baptist at that. For me to break the bonds of 
this caste structure, I had to be born-again. Only after I 
had seen enough poverty and oppression and 
discrimination and visited enough bleak jails did I come to 
know viscerally the true side of the south. As I grew up, I 
learned painfully that the very structures which had 
blessed me, which gave me my privileged position, 
excluded black people and white poor people. In order to 
enjoy the status I possessed by accident of birth, I had to 
be willing to share it and to extend it to others. 

Q But you must admit, Bill, not all church people interpret 
being "born again" that radically. How did you come to 

that? 

A That I personally have lived so long and so complacently and 
so close to their indifference, consenting, like Saul of 
Tarsus, holding the coats, will certainly haunt me the rest 
of my days on earth and face me on the day of judgment. 

16 



We must challenge the middle-class axioms concerning the 
poor. I have seen migrant farm-workers in the fields and 
their families strewn about the yards of uninhabitable 
shacks, I have talked with brown lung castaways, and I 
have witnessed the spectacle and smelled the poverty of 
the inner city. I have come to the conclusion that these 
millions of Americans, trapped in tragedy and unable to 
make it on their own, should not therefore be deprived of 
their rights and privileges as American citizens. Our Lord 
was one of these poor people, and He spent his life among 
the poor and lowly, the tired and heavy-laden. The poor, 
the old people, the black people, the laboring people who 
want secure jobs — they all teach you. I can't help 
identifying with them. They rend your heart and stretch it. 

Q You once explained your maverick behavior as being 
implanted in you while at Wake Forest College. 

A Certain professors, yes. The Poteats, Paschal, Cullom, Reid. 
They were gentlemen scholars, thoroughly embedded in 
classical learning. They opened my eyes to a larger 
worldview and in turn taught me to be an independent 
thinker. 

Q Though you claim their influence, you and I both know they 
would be the first to disclaim your radicalness: your 
anti-military stance, your fighting segregation, your 
favoring labor unions, your siding with the poor. . . 

A I must admit the hardest part of growing up is to see the true 
size of one's mentors, and to try to rise above them. Wake 
Forest was no hotbed of radicals. The institution has been 
graduating preachers into the Baptist convention 
leadership for lo these many years and one would be hard 
put to find a single heretic or apostate, including myself, in 
the whole kit and caboodle. Suffice it here to say that we 
must indict our southern colleges and seminaries for their 
timidity and want of social vision. 

Q What other factors influenced your transformation into a 
different kind of preacher? 

17 



A When I took my first parish, I was close enough to Raleigh to 
meet a young minister also just out of seminary, only he 
had graduated from Union in New York City. I couldn't 
believe how much the tone and extent of his education 
differed from mine. Carl Herman Voss put me onto a lot 
of liberal magazines and profound theological books which 
had somehow escaped my theological mentors. Not that I 
was altogether ignorant of these sources, but the emphasis 
at my seminary was different. I found an excitement I had 
missed. 

I gather from your extensive bibliography that you early put 
your hand to writing and became rather widely published? 

A Not really. Besides dispatching random pieces to this 
newspaper and that journal, I became a budding columnist 
with my own pseudonym. In fact, during the first year I 
produced some twenty columns. 

Q What was your by-line? 

A Festus Erasmus. Can you believe that? It was a bit 
sophomoric. I was trying to combine the word Festus, 
which of course is a Roman name in the New Testament 
and which means joy, to Erasmus which stands for wisdom 
and humanism. I wanted to identify myself with much of 
what goes under the banner of humanism. Somewhere I 
have read that Martin Luther wrote about Jesus that "if we 
take hold of Him as a man we would discover that He is 
God." Most of His teaching and action in the New 
Testament was mundane, that is to say, having to do with 
human life. 

Q Are you, like Erasmus, a Christian humanist? 

A I would not like to be known as a Christian humanist but I 
don't mind being called a humanist. I am a Christian who 
is also a humanist. It is a beautiful word. No one can truly 
believe in the doctrine of incarnation and reject humanism. 
"The word became flesh and dwelt among us." Or, again, 
"God so loved the world." Isn't it strange that people take 



two words, secular, which is a beautiful word and 
humanism, which is another beautiful word, both 
biblically based, and make them a dirty term! 

Q You are well aware that the term "humanist" is under heavy 
fire now from the religious right? 

A Yes, but I see no reason for their suspicion whatsoever. For 
one thing, there are not that many humanists around. But 
far more significantly we have here a controversy which in 
my judgment is unnecessary, unfortunate, and avoidable. 
A deep love-respect should exist between Christian and 
Humanist. A willingness to listen and understand and work 
together would resolve many differences. And both have a 
shared and paramount mutual concern which in religious 
terms is the salvation and redemption, and in humanist 
terms is the enrichment and fulfillment, of our common 
humanity. 

Q Isn't there a theological issue involved too? 

A Indeed so. The Christians who reject humanism tend to reject 
the humanity of Christ; they approach heresy in the face 
of basic Christian belief. But Christians have always been 
afraid of this total humanity of Jesus and what it implies. 
It is a terrible threat to man's inhumanity to man. These 
Christians prefer to keep Jesus mystical, divine and distant. 
But the Christian faith for all its mystical and transcendent 
and supernatural qualities is yet the most materialistic and 
humanistic religion on earth. 

Q Your wide humane interests have expressed themselves in the 
ecumenical contacts you have always cultivated. In spite of 
the sectarian withdrawal of the denomination you belong 
to, your church not only belongs to both the Southern and 
the American Baptist Conventions but also to the North 
Carolina Council of Churches and the World Council. 

A I have often found myself more at home with other Christian 
bodies on what I take to be the universal spirit of Christ. 
An Episcopal magazine has published more of my articles; 

19 



the Quakers, especially those in the American Friends 
Service Committee, are more compatible with my peace 
aims; and early in my ministry I had to make a hard 
decision and split with the anti-catholicism of my 
predecessor and have since found myself enriched by the 
Catholicism expressed by the Berrigans, the Mertons, and 
the Rose Mary Reuthers. One of my earliest articles in the 
state Baptist journal encouraged my brethern not to shut 
their ears to the birth-cries of the National Council of 
Churches. Needless to say, I have not always been 
successful in these efforts. For instance, a few months 
prior to my leaving the pastorate at Flizabeth City, the 
Chairman of the Diaconate brought to the attention of the 
church that it had become a participant in the World 
Council. Some members had gotten the notion that this 
organization advocated revolutionary methods, including 
racial disturbances. This deacons' meeting was quite 
stormy and I was brought to task for somehow having 
caused the church to join. They voted to terminate our 
membership. 

O Such rebuffs do not seem to have deterred you over the 
years. 

A I live in hope. Today I am happy to count among my friends 
the Catholic Bishop of the local diocese and many rabbis 
across the state. 

Q I remember when a recent president of the Southern Baptists 
announced that God does not hear the prayer of a Jew you 
immediately responded with a clever piece entitled "The 
Prayer of Three Jews." 

A I along with many other Baptists was shocked hearing such 
narrowness from our leader. I am proud to say that my 
Pullen congregation has rallied to resist any encroachments 
upon our ecumenical inclusiveness made by the 
denomination. 

Q Baptists have rebuffed you and disowned you on so many 

20 



occasions, sometimes treating you rather shabbily — some 
would say with less than Christian charity — , why haven't 
you given up on them? 

A I've always thought you have an obligation within the church 
and the region to understand it, to appropriate it, to grow 
in it, to transcend it. True, I have many times been a part 
of His Majesty's loyal opposition, but I've never wanted to 
leave His Majesty's kingdom. 

Q You cannot deny that you have certainly afflicted Baptists 
with your endless resolutions — egging them on, agitating 
them, reminding them of their self-professed heights, 
calling them back to their radical roots. How could they 
stomach you? 

A You are right to indicate that it took a lot of grace on the 
part of both sides in order for us to accept each other. But, 
you must remember, I am primarily a Baptist minister 
serving my church. I'm not a reformer, or a radical, or a 
professional do-gooder, in spite of what they say. But I do 
believe the church must lead the way on human rights. 
And I think that Baptists have gained a great deal of social 
awareness. While my "far out" resolutions may have been 
way ahead of them, the truth of the matter is that the 
Baptist Convention has come around to adopting in 
principle some of them. I never expected anything like 
immediate success and I was aware, even when I went 
down, I was scoring points, really registering an effect. If I 
have maintained my cool or preserved any personal 
integrity, it is because way down deep I felt I was for the 
most part right. With a God-guided conscience which 
counts on the moral capacity latent in all persons one 
develops a sense of stability, a calmness, and the courage 
to be unpopular. 

Q Your son-in-law composed in fun your epitaph: 

"Here lies the body of W. W. 

No longer around to trouble you." 

21 



He was thinking of those who label yon trouble-maker and 
rabble-rouser. 

A I have been called many things; the worst I cannot mention 
in polite society. Names like communist, red, traitor, 
nigger-lover. Naturally I am hurt when people so misread 
me. I am not by constitution a tough-skinned person. I am 
deeply sensitive to such brutal remarks. But I have tried 
not to take them personally, managing a smile and 
brushing them off with a quip. I was recently reminded by 
a friend of an episode that happened years ago here on the 
streets of Raleigh, something I had forgotten. We were in a 
protest march of some sort and Charlie Craven, a reporter 
for the News and Observer was interviewing me. A 
passerbyer looked me straight in the face. "You s.o.b.!" he 
taunted. My friend reports that I instantly turned to 
Charlie and said, "Did you hear what that man called 
you?" 

I have found myself in many tense and dangerous 
positions, taking stands for what I believe Christ would 
also favor. I console myself that Christ was also a 
trouble-maker and that He brought into existence a rag-tag 
bunch of followers called upon to turn the world 
up-side-down. 

Q Have you ever been personally harmed or endangered by 
your unpopular stands? 

A There were the usual hate-letters, obscene telephone calls late 
at night, an occasional threat on my life, and I did go to 
the extent of parking my car under street lamps, just in 
case. . . . But I don't think I ever felt harassed. As the 
Psalmist puts it, I may have "imagined a vain thing," and 
perhaps, as Shakespeare says, supposed a bush to be a bear. 
There were indeed moments of personal fear. Perhaps 
greater than this was a sense of guilt, the fear that 
somebody might take something out on one of my 
children. Just how much my wife and family have suffered 
is something I am not able to compute. Probably the 



22 



children went through more in their teen ages than we'll 
ever know, though they seem to have come through pretty 
unscathed. Perhaps a minister's wife who has this 
additional burden of a husband like me, suffers most, 
especially when the guns attack from both inside and 
outside the church. Mary Lib, however, has accused me of 
enjoying the thick of battle, even having a zest for it. She 
may have a little justifiable resentment against me from 
time to time, but I think it may be safely said that the 
family has felt that we stood on the ground of principles 
and are proud to have done so. 

Q In your labors for human rights, the poor, the voiceless and 
the defenceless, you have been seen "consorting with" all 
sorts of people, communists, revolutionists, anarchists, 
professional agitators. Two questions come to mind: first, 
how did you manage your Mr. Clean image, and, second, 
how do you think a Christian should function amidst such 
company? 

A "Mr. Clean" is the last thing my bitterest enemies and closest 
friends would call me. They both know me better than 
that. And I know myself better than that. But I think I get 
what you mean. How does the Christian associate with the 
world without having the world to rub off on him. All I 
can say is that from my earliest commitment I have known 
it was absolutely necessary. In my first published article I 
gave expression to that fear: that no matter how noble the 
truth uttered it could be eclipsed by the moral flaw in the 
deliverer. 

On the other hand, you must know also that I am 
something of "the last Puritan." Believe it or not, I am 
basically conservative. Look at my life, a thoroughly 
institutional man, a democrat, a supporter of law and 
order. I admit to a paradox in this claim. I tried to 
formulate this paradox once in an article widely circulated, 
"Why I am a Conservative." One of my most vigorous 
critics upon seeing the piece is said to have beat his head in 
despair. 

23 



Q Yet I have heard you say that you have in fact become more 
radical over the years, more radical than most of the 
organizations to which you belong. 

A I hope I have become more radical and I think I've also 
become more conservative. I am not at heart an anarchist. 
On the contrary, you might even call me a law and order 
person. However law and order are never to be all and the 
end all. My record in labor halls, in civil liberties, within 
church councils does indeed appear to be impatient with 
plodding programs and restrictive goals. 

Q You are aware that some groups do not think you radical 
enough, those Christians who think you exemplify civil 
religion, those committed to liberation theology, those not 
unlike churchmen in Poland who identify Marxism and 
Christianity. How do you answer them? 

A That is the penalty of living too long! If one lives long 
enough one is bound to live through different levels of 
social concern; that's true also of Christians. However I 
find myself even in my sixties sitting on boards and 
committees alongside these younger radicals, able to 
communicate with them and not differing too widely on 
our ultimate goals. The radical vision of my early years has 
stood me well in the vagaries of history. I suppose if there 
are any two contentions that might separate us they would 
have to do with my faith in the democratic process and my 
fear of taking up the sword. 

Q You have been called "North Carolina's voice of dissent." 
How and why did you undertake that role? 

A I guess I just grabbed the stick of my Baptist heritage by the 
right end. 

Q What do you mean by that? 

A I mean that most Baptists have no idea how radical their 
heritage is. We are a denomination born in dissent, 
conceived among a persecuted minoritv. I have felt all 

24 



along that Southern Baptists, instead of being cautious and 
culture-conforming, that we should lift up our voice with 
strength and without fear and speak the prophetic word 
and pronounce the divine judgment on issues which so 
clearly and so unavoidably are freighted with Christian 
significance. 

Q But you were so often alone in expressing that Baptist claim; 
even they sometimes thought you a laughable lot. 

A Dissent is never easy, particularly in critical times. But it is all 
the more necessary to give expression of dissent in such a 
time. The majority opinion of any given society is often 
not the right opinion. Wise people look for truth and 
reality as they float to the surface in the boiling seas of 
social unrest. The less wise can think of nothing but the 
stifling of protest and the killing off of dissent. The society 
which does this blinds itself to possible deficiencies. True, 
the demonstration of protest and dissent is frequently an 
ugly episode. It heats up the passions of all concerned until 
the lava of violence may pour over the slopes in a 
destroying hate. Still protest and dissent offer striking 
opportunities for a culture, armed with its own mores and 
entrenched in its own customs, to see itself as it really is, 
to become less defensive of innovation, and to alter itself 
for the better. To paraphrase our Lord, I think there is 
more weeping in heaven over one dissenter squelched than 
over ninety-nine anti-dissident conservatives safely in the 
fold. 

Q You seem to have found both your denomination and your 
state to be something less than hospitable toward dissent? 

A Yes, on numerous occasions I seem to have touched the raw 
nerve of our exploitive conservatism. In our state, for 
instance, there seems to be a systematic use of courts and 
jails to suppress dissent. We charge communist countries 
for doing precisely this. We in turn must never use the 
structures of criminal justice to suppress dissent. And in 
religious circles we must never bury creative dissent under 

25 



the cloak of supercilious piety and false unity. 

Q Do you find your public devotion to civil rights at odds with 
your Christian ministry? 

A Whatever activism I have manifested grows naturally out of 
my religion. I operate on two levels — the Sermon on the 
Mount and the Bill of Rights. And, you must remember, 
my Baptist tradition holds to the literalness of the Sermon 
and contributed by suffering whiplashes to the particulars 
of the Bill. 

Q There are some who hold that you are less a minister of the 
Gospel than you are a minister of the law, i.e., preaching 
more from the laws upholding civil liberties than from the 
Bible. 

A Well, it cuts both ways. We have lots of people who side with 
law and order and wrap that position up in the gospel. On 
the other side, we desperately need the gospel speaking to 
the law. I would like to think that I have spent my time 
doing the latter, pursuing the spiritual radicalness implicit 
in the basic American documents. 

Many of my arguments for justice and equality do in fact 
emerge from my Baptist understanding of the separation 
of church and state. I reject the myth of a Christian 
nation, as do all true Baptists. To be a Baptist with our 
history is to witness to the espousal of a free church in a 
secular state. In defending atheists this has to be done on 
principle. Freedom of religion implies also freedom from 
religion. There is no true guarantee of the practice of our 
faith unless we solidly defend the rights of people to have 
no religious faith. The Constitution never mentions God or 
the Bible or life immortal. It simply says in the first 
Amendment that the government will have no part in 
advancing or inhibiting religion. 

Q In your self-appointed role as watch-dog of the Legislature, 
for decades now, you have invited the label "political 
parson." How do you reply to that? 

26 



A Well, it is true that I have functioned as chairman of the 
legislative committee for several organizations. And you 
know the "second legislature" did move out Hillsboro 
Street closer to me in the deluxe motels after the 
destruction of the Sir Walter Hotel. Thus the label 
originates from my proximity and my organizational 
assignments. ... I never felt that I was too political. No 
one who knows me well could ever have suspected me of 
wanting political power. I have never wanted to be a 
politician and have always hoped I could remain a 
minister. I did feel that the church is as good a place to 
achieve or to help achieve desired political change, or 
changes which are brought about by political leadership. I 
have never wanted to do anything political that would 
advance the church I serve or the denomination I belong to 
or religion in general. So I am not a "political parson," but 
I do believe with Aristotle that every person is a political 
animal. 

Q The Gospels speak of those dragged before kings and rulers to 
bear witness. Now you're not one to be "dragged," but 
you've certainly found yourself testifying in the presence 
of political power on more than one occasion. 

A I have been blessed by politician-friends in high places. Four 
of my speeches have been inserted into the Congressional 
Record, by four different Senators. I have been to the 
White House under two presidents. On the other hand, I 
have stood in vigil at the gates of the White House and 
have released public letters challenging the record of some 
of our officials. As I said before, politics is not a dirty but 
a beautiful word, so let's be unblushingly political, all of 
us. That's the crucial difference between Jesus' comments 
and our privilege to participate in the democratic process. 
We need not be victims when we can contribute. In my 
judgment, you cannot be a Christian unpolitically today. 

Q You don't see any conflict, then, between preaching the 
Gospel and practicing politics? 

27 



A I can hear people saying: This is a preacher talking about 
politics and government and he has hardly mentioned God, 
the Bible and the church. Why doesn't he stop his 
meddling and stick to preaching the gospel? Well, the 
Gospel has something to say to those people. "For I was 
an hungered and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty and ye 
gave me drink; I was a stranger and ye took me in; naked 
and ye clothed me; I was sick and ye visited me; I was in 
prison, and ye came to me. Verily I say unto you, 
inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, 
my brethren, ye have done it unto me." If anyone knows a 
non-political way of dealing with massive hunger, massive 
sickness, massive poor housing, massive prison reform, and 
doing it realistically, I should love to hear from him. 

Q Your defense of the separation of church and state does not 
imply, then, that church people and churches themselves 
should not get involved in politics? 

A Not at all. When the church withdraws from the political life 
of society to protect its purity it ends by becoming the 
very thing it sought to escape. For when the church has 
said to politics, You render to Caesar and we shall render 
to God, the church has already become a replica of the 
society it abjures. And society will never be transformed or 
redeemed by a replica of itself. 

Q How does your political record differ from the aggressive 
politics of the new religious right? 

A I defend their right to be engaged in politics. What I do 
object to is their choice of issues, the very circumscribed 
list of issues, by which they grade candidates. Their limited 
morality tends to deal with personal and surface sins 
instead of the more biblical definition of sin as rooted in 
powers and principalities in high places. Moreover, their 
moralism tends to approve of the privileged few and to 
forget the masses suffering on the borders of their own 
standard of living. Their identity of God with our 
American way of life, of a military God who crusades 

28 



against our enemies, of a vindictive God who approves of 
capital punishment — all this tends to place God on narrow 
political grounds. Nonetheless we must not work to 
deprive them of being political; we must expose their 
politics for what much of it is, selfishness under religious 
sanction. 

Q You must admit that as a Baptist preacher politics has mixed 
you with strange company and put you in odd places. You 
have defended the Ku Klux Klan and the Communist 
Workers Party, the American Nazis and the Moonies, and 
all sorts of schemes viewed by conventional society as 
suspect. 

A Do I not find it an awkward stance for a preacher to defend 
such things as pornography and brown-bagging and the 
decriminalization of marijuana and of private crimes; the 
answer is yes indeed this is an embarrassment. From time 
to time I have passed the burden on to other civil 
libertarians to testify in these cases. And on occasion I 
have simply said that I have to wear two hats. I have also 
explained the situation by saying that, whereas I may be 
personally opposed to certain practices, that as a citizen in 
a pluralist society believing in freedom, we have to deal 
with these issues not so much as sins as social issues. Also 
what may be an ethical matter to some of us may not be 
so to others but we all must promote the free society. I 
have on occasions said that, whereas I defend the rights of 
all people to do certain things as citizens, on Sunday 
morning I will denounce these practices from the pulpit! It 
is still true that I fear obscenity less than censorship; this is 
a case where we need not laws to suppress but a deeper 
commitment to the mandate to overcome evil with good. 

Q Did you ever use the pulpit for political purposes? 

A I have been charged with that by some within my own 
congregation and by many without. But the answer to that 
charge rests on the conception of the free pulpit. As I see 
it, to preach the Gospel devoid of political relevance is 
impossible. 

29 



Q There's a widely circulated jingle about your Pullen ministry: 
"Pullen stands for preachers who in politics dabble 
Exciting the fury and hate of the rabble. 
Enflaming the mind with fanatical vigor 
To crush down the whites and build up the nigger." 

A I guess I've heard the whole range of criticism over the years, 
but I've tried not to let that type of mentality deter me 
from exercising the free pulpit. The Pullen congregation 
guaranteed me that privilege. . . . To win the victory 
requires that we give to the pulpit, I should say, restore to 
the pulpit, that freedom in responsibility through which 
alone the gospel can be proclaimed in its fulness and 
without fear. Many silent folk would exhibit the same love 
of freedom and truth if circumstances permitted the kind 
of freedom that is available to a minister who is unafraid 
to accept it. The miracle of change, the leaven of 
transformation, begins to take place in the community 
where there is at least one free voice. The editor, the 
school teacher, yes, even the politician, breathe a freer air 
and move with a firmer courage, however, unconsciously, 
and act with a different emphasis in those communities 
where truth is constantly proclaimed. Truth spoken in one 
area elicits the expression of truth in every area. All other 
freedoms depend ultimately upon the freedom of religion, 
and the freedom of religion is null and void until the pulpit 
has come to speak the truth in love. 

Q Bill, from what you describe, you seem to have pursued a 
double-vocation in life, the one in the free pulpit of a local 
congregation, the other in your worldly citizenship role. 

A I have tried to act out in my life, as an ordinary citizen in a 
democratic society, the implications of the Gospel. That 
meant I spent much of my time beyond my parish duties. 
For instance, during my ten-year tenure as chairman of the 
North Carolina Advisory Committee to the Civil Rights 
Commission, we conducted investigations and progress 
reports on Indian rights, prisoner rights, migrant worker 
rights and the state of desegregation within the public 



30 



schools. We also conducted a hearing with 
recommendations on the Greensboro massacre of 1979. 

Q What do you think of the reversal of the present political 
leadership to your long campaign for basic democratic 
rights? 

A I am painfully aware of this reversal — of the cutbacks in 
allocations for these studies and of the firing of Arthur 
Fleming, Chairman of the U. S. Commission. Oftentimes 
our feeble efforts get thwarted, and some have even 
alluded to what we have done as exercises in futility and 
failure. 

Q Does it bother you that progress is not always forthcoming? 

A No, our Lord never assured us success; He only demanded 
that we remain faithful to Him in the works that He does 
in the world. I have, to be honest, on the whole fought a 
losing fight, and I am forced to address myself to the New 
Testament command "not to grow weary in well-doing." 

Q One of your heroes was Frank Porter Graham. His career was 
also accompanied by tragic set-backs, yet he was a 
noble-spirited loser. Am I correct in surmising that your 
eulogy to him expresses your own philosophy? Here is 
how some of it reads: 

"My final memory is a legacy. It has to do with Dr. 
Graham's attitude regarding controversy. How could so 
saintly a man be so controversial, and survive? It was 
always a part of my teaching that good men managed to 
avoid controversy but here was without doubt one of the 
most moral men who ever lived in our state moving from 
one controversy to the other and always maintaining 
respect and regard for his opponents. His formula was 
simple: Don't go around looking for controversy, mounted 
and armed like a knight. And don't waste your energies 
and resources on side issues and peripheral matters. But 
when you encounter situations of principle, when you are 
face to face with ethical issues, summon all your powers 

31 



and meet them head on. He told us this and something else 
too. In a day when, as a famous football coach once put it, 
'Winning is not everything. It is the only thing.' Dr. 
Graham said that losing may be more important than 
winning if you can make a witness in losing a battle. Be 
sure, he said, that you go down with all flags flying."' 

A You may say that I have indeed had to ponder those words 
afresh since I wrote them on the occasion of a great man's 
death. My recent experience has made them come alive. 

Q Turning to a more basic question, what would you say has 
been the theological undergirding of your preaching and 
your practice? 

A The more I understand Christian faith, the more I see the 
Bible is concerned with justice. And I've found that if God 
has any prejudice at all, He's prejudiced on the side of the 
poor and deprived and underprivileged. . . . The Scriptures 
tell us that the Messiah who was to come and the Messiah 
who did come, and is ever coming, identifies His mission 
and His message with the underprivileged, the powerless, 
the alienated, the blind and the lame and the suppressed. If 
the church ever realizes that God is on the side of these 
people and is summoning us to their cause, all of these 
fabricated axioms and myths about welfare people will be 
clobbered, every mountain of pride and self illusion will be 
brought low, every valley or rut shall be filled, and we shall 
make straight in the desert highways for our God. And 
when we have ministered unto the least of God's children 
we have done it unto Him. 



This booklet is based on taped interviews made during 1981 and 
on a book in preparation covering the nearly fifty years of 
Finlator's public career. 



Historical Society had the perspicacity to discern this several years ago and 
garnered those files for itself. Four U. S. Senators have inserted his speeches 
into the Congressional Record. He has conducted a spirited correspondence 
with Senator (ret.) Sam Ervin, with whom he was closely identified on the 
constitutional rights of citizens but with whom he diverged on practically 
every other matter. Listed among his friends are Paul Green, Frank Porter 
Graham, Marion Wright, Sam Ragan, Tom Lassiter and a host of other 
distinguished Americans. 

As might be expected, his name is synonymous with controversy — 
controversies such as those surrounding his attacks on Billy Graham and the 
Vietnam war, and his 1979 telegram to President Carter concerning the 
desegregation of the state university system. Never a person to lack courage 
or to keep quiet when he saw human values threatened, he has earned the 
reputation of fulfilling the motto of the university he attended, pro 
humanitate (Wake Forest). As democracy thrives on its creative dissenters, 
few and harried though they be, Bill has been one of democracy 's finest 
promoters. His paraphrase of the Gospel reads, "There is more sorrow in 
heaven over one dissenter squelched, than over all conservatives who brook 
no dissent." W. W. Finlator is truly North Carolina's voice of dissent. 



"God always takes His stand unconditionally and passionately 
on this side and this side alone: against the lofty and on behalf 
of the lowly, against those who already enjoy right and privilege 
and on behalf of those who are denied it and deprived of it." 

— Karl Barth in Church Dogmatics, II, Pt. 1, 
(1957), p. 386. 

"We have for once learnt to see the great events of world history 
from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, 
the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled — in 
short, from the perspective of those who suffer." 

— Barth 's disciple, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 
in Letters from Prison, p. 17. 



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